Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace - The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub: Seven Days In The Life Of The Late, Great John McCain

In memory of David Foster Wallace, who died Friday -- one of his classic essays, this one is from Rolling Stone.

Wallace had a sharp eye for the absurd and trivial nature of much of American life, especially politics. Too bad he never saw through the absurdity to the freedom that one can enjoy once life is seen as an amusing illusion.

The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub

Seven Days In The Life Of The Late, Great John McCain

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, Posted Apr 13, 2000 9:36 AM

Prologue: Who Cares?

Since You're Reading "Rolling Stone," the chances are you're an American between say 18 and 35, which demographically makes you a Young Voter. And no generation of Young Voters has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours. There's hard demographic and voter-pattern data backing this up - assuming you give a shit about data. In fact, even if you're reading other stuff in RS, it's doubtful you're going to read much of this article — such is the enormous shuddering yawn that the Political Process evokes in us now, in this post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era, an era when politicians' statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their sincerity or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability. And no generation has been marketed and Spun and pitched to as ingeniously and relentlessly as today's demographic Young. So when Senator John McCain says, in Michigan or South Carolina (which is where Rolling Stone sent the least professional pencil it could find to spend the standard media Week on the Bus with a candidate who'd never ride higher than he is right now), when McCain says "I run for president not to Be Somebody, but to Do Something," it's hard to hear it as anything more than a marketing angle, especially when he says it as he's going around surrounded by cameras and reporters and cheering crowds ? in other words, Being Somebody.

And when Senator John McCain also says — constantly, thumping it at the start and end of every speech and THM — that his goal as president will be "to inspire young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest," it's hard not to hear it as just one more piece of the carefully scripted bullshit that presidential candidates hand us as they go about the self-interested business of trying to become the most powerful, important and talked-about human being on earth, which is of course their real "cause," to which they appear to be so deeply devoted that they can swallow and spew whole mountains of noble-sounding bullshit and convince even themselves that they mean it. Cynical as that may sound, polls show it's how most of us feel. And it's beyond not believing the bullshit; mostly we don't even hear it, dismiss it at the same deep level where we also block out billboards and Muzak.

But there's something underneath politics in the way you have to hear McCain, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain's military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there. It's very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we've all heard so much about it and partly because it's so off-the-charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man's life. But it's worth considering for a minute, because it's what makes McCain's "causes greater than self-interest" line easier to hear.

You probably already know what happened. In October of '67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain's arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you'd be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi. Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the lifevest's toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there's film of this, somebody had a home-movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it's grainy and McCain's face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90° to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison — a.k.a. the "Hanoi Hilton," of much movie fame — where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can't lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it's important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant's office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain's father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true — both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military's Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who'd been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a "punishment cell." Maybe you've heard all this before; it's been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can't know for sure. None of us can. It's hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you'd react.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he's capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches in early February you can feel like maybe it isn't just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it's maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit: the guy does — did — want your vote, after all.

But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in '68 — right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him — that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign, that moment seems to underlie McCain's "greater than self-interest" line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb that's hard to ignore. The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered — voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. Literally: "moral authority," that old cliché, much like so many other clichés — "service," "honor," "duty," "patriotism" — that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we've seen, though — arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in '98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-Span, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July '99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire Town Hall Meetings — something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like "service" and "sacrifice" and "honor" might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. About whether anything past well-Spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened? These, for the most part, are not lines of thinking that the culture we've grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you suppose that is?

Go read the whole long, sprawling essay.

One wonders how the McCain that Wallace describes turned into the manipulative, lying, meaningless asshat running for president this year?


1 comment:

Steven Nickeson said...

Even though Wallace could call attention to each tiny detail of his surroundings, his examination of them does not impress me with its depth. Maybe that was the flaw in his own life too. His recounting of McCain's downing and POW experience in the Rolling Stone essay is a good example. His repetitive addressing the reader with the "try to imagine" device tells me he also tried to imagine and all he came up with were pain and fear and some superficial sense of honor. I suspect what was repressed or not even recognized or for some reason not imagined by Wallace were such life sustaining responses as hatred, alpha male competitiveness, consciously tactical aggression, a disposition for passive aggression, racism, the revenge instinct, and the infinitly grandiose arrogance of Navy fighter pilots that probably played a far greater role in McCain's resistance to his captors than just a singular sense of honor. Honor is the acceptable name for actions that result when those less than laudable, base level responses are "properly" channeled by military indoctrination. A writer like Hunter Thompson, no stranger to less than laudable, base level responses, certainly would have examined such things closely in re: to McCain if he had been covering the 2000 race for RS as he had in previous campaigns.

Such an examination goes a long way toward answering your "how could McCain...turn into..?" question at the end of your post. I have found imagination in the Integral Province has a pronounced blind spot to such integrally evolutionary qualities. Instead of transcend and include, it is more like disdain and repress; a partiality in the perspective that severely damages the validity of the theory.